Getting mugged in Buenos Aires

I’d been to one of those birthday parties where the only person you know is the host.

At that stage my Spanish was still rudimentary, meaning that only Argentines of the utmost patience and generosity would be willing to listen to me describe my daily routines, in the present tense of course. Since there are in fact no Argentines like that, I knew that I must resort to artificial help; with a bit of Dutch Courage I would become not only a virtuoso Spanish-speaking wordsmith, but also, crucially, an interesting person. To the bottle I went, and found that soon I was holding forth in front of a crowd of one on my past routines (in the imperfect tense).

It was around 2:30am when I left the party, early by Argentine standards; late by civilised standards. It was in a shared house at the southern end of San Telmo, near the intersection of 9 de Julio with Juan de Garay, and I had already identified a bus, the 39, that would take me almost to my doorstep in Palermo.

On the map there was a large block of green opposite my bus stop – lovely, a nice park to contemplate in the early hours. Not quite. Unfortunately I forgot to switch to ‘satellite view’, which would have revealed that the Plaza, in fact a concrete-ridden drugs hole, lay at the doorstep of the Constitución train station, vying with the San Lorenzo football stadium for the title of ‘most unsavoury place in the whole of Argentina’.

In my blissful ignorance I sauntered – or rather stumbled – my way towards my chosen bus station, my flip-flops slapping around on the pavement, my white arms like beacons in the night. I had earlier noted that in my wallet were 200 pesos (around $40 US at that time), a sizeable amount. In my other pocket was my crappy nokia phone, the predecessor of the 32-10, and my little moleskin notebook, chosen that night because it was the only thing I had that contained words and would fit into my pocket.

The street was silent, and the only lamp flickered uselessly. A man appeared from around the corner and veered towards me:

“Give me money.”

I probably should have found this command worrying, but the truth is everyone speaks like this in Buenos Aires. A ‘please’ or a ‘thank you’ are luxuries meant only for your grandparents and your boss. So I thought I would humour him, assuming that if I gave him a token amount he would decide not to pester me and I would be allowed to wait for the bus in peace, maybe even read a little. There was a kind of wild look in his eyes which I found unnerving, probably drug-related – ‘paco’ is the favourite in these parts – and I calculated that apart from leaving me alone, he was less likely to do something irrational like attack me if I just gave him something.

The moment the giving was concluded, I was dismayed to see that three previously unseen shadows materialised from under the hood of the bus stop and were walking directly for me. Bugger.

I tell myself now that if they had just stood around me and demanded my wallet then I would have acquiesced. Well, I probably would have; although those 200 pesos could have bought 40 bottles of Quilmes beer…

But they didn’t stand around me. The first of the trio went straight for my left pocket. I didn’t realise it at the time but he actually ripped the pocket open, which later required a sewing job that I was certainly not capable of doing. The other two, and possibly the original ‘beggar’ as well, who for all I knew may have been in on the whole plan, proceeded to attack me in a rather haphazard flailing manner.

I matched their flailing with my own. I had never punched anyone in my life, and my only experience of fighting was in boarding school, in which you were expected to grapple honourably until you or your opponent achieved some kind of head or arm lock, at which point the fight would be concluded and you would leave in silent sweaty satisfaction, your Alpha status confirmed for that day. So my fight with my Argentine attackers, probably in their teens and all at least a head shorter than me, followed the boarding school pattern, but with less locks and more shoving.

At some point three of us were on the ground rolling around. One of the boys, still standing, reached into his pocket and I suddenly considered that he might be carrying a knife, or worse, a gun, so I rugby-tackled him, making sure to take the man and the ball – or, as in this case, the man and the knife/gun.

By this stage I sensed that they were rather losing interest in the whole thing. They had probably just been waiting for a bus when I’d come trundling into view and, short of conversation, they’d seen the opportunity to make a bit of money while having a bit of fun. Whatever the case, I ran off to a taxi that had slowed in passing, sensing a fare (albeit one who probably didn’t have a wallet), and jumped in.

“Plaza de Mayo, por favor,” I said, choosing the nearest populated bus station. Even in times of trauma, it’s best not to waste money on an expensive taxi ride home (at least 20 pesos). The taxidriver railed against my young attackers, cursing them in all the colourful ways that only Argentines know. I agreed with him energetically and assessed the damage: one flip-flop missing – annoying; no phone missing – good; no wallet missing – very good; the notebook?

Bugger. I’d lost my bloody notebook. It must have fallen out of the ripped pocket without my noticing. Full of the last few weeks’ observations, I fancied that one day it would lay the foundations of my Great South American novel. So irritated was I by this turn of events that I considered asking the taxidriver to turn back.

I did in fact return, the next day. After a few minutes scouring around the bus stop I found my missing flip-flop. I assume my attackers left it because it was about 20 sizes too big for them, and a single flip-flop is not as useful as a pair.

The search for my notebook was less productive, it wasn’t even around the corner where my attackers, having realised it was of no value, would surely have thrown it away. I consoled myself in the thought that they would be so anxious to know its contents – the treasure maps hidden within, the coded messages and bank account details – that they would endeavour to learn English and actually read it. Maybe they would even ask me for English lessons…?

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Cerro Torre Trek – El Chalten – Patagonia

Cerro Torre

Cerro Torre Trek

Length: 24km (5 hours)

Ascent: 200m

Difficulty: Easy

Hardest bit: Gentle slope up through scree at the very end.

Season: October – May

Refreshments: Not till you’re back in El Chalten. Take a picnic to eat at the lake / Parking: Anywhere along the road (RN23) by the trail-head / Website (English) / Map with pictures; Map with distances; Minimalist map

Cerro Torre map

The trek to Laguna Cerro Torre is the one at the bottom. Notice the two different trail-heads, and how the river is kept on your left for the whole walk.

 

To get the most out of this trek you should first read about the hot-tempered history of climbing Cerro Torre.

 

The trek:

1. All the paths are off to the left side (west) as you enter El Chalten. There are two different trail-heads for this walk: one starts from the dirt roads just north of El Chalten on RN23, beyond the bank and to the right of the rock bluff; the other starts with a series of carved-out steps to the left of the rock bluff, where the tarmac roads are, and goes via a dam. Both trails become one after 5 mins. Look out for the big wooden sign saying “Senda a Laguna Torre”.

2. The path goes through beech woods and enters the gorge of the Fitzroy river. After around 1 hour 45 minutes you reach the Laguna Torre viewpoint, from where you can see Cerro Torre. This is almost halfway.

3. The path continues down to the valley floor, following the Fitzroy river, and after 45 minutes you arrive at a signposted fork. This is where those wanting to trek across to Mt. Fitzroy and the Poncenot campsite leave the trail (this path is usually closed).

4. After another 30 minutes of following the river you reach the De Agostini (formerly Bridwell) campsite, base camp for Cerro Torre.

5. Walk up 10 minutes or so on the path winding through the rocky moraine to Laguna Torre and enjoy the view (but wrap up warm!).
[Note: you can keep on walking up and to the right of the lake to a spot called the Maestri viewpoint. The walk is quite steep and requires at least another 2 hours.]
[Note: you are not supposed to go on the path that goes to the left of the lake to the glacier without a guide.]

6. Head back the same way, all the way to El Chalten.

Cerro Torre trailhead

1. Looking down from the hill by the upper trail-head. Notice how the roads up here, above the bank and the rock bluff, are dirt roads.

Trailhead Cerro Torre

1. The lower trail-head leads up the steps. Mt Fitzroy is in the background.

Senda a Laguna Torre

1. The official start of the trek.

Cerro torre bosque

2. The path through the beech forest.

Mirador Cerro Torre

2. Mirador Cerro Torre (the viewpoint – almost halfway). Cerro Torre is behind the cloud in the middle. Mt Fitzroy is that big thing on the right.

Cerro Torre valley

3. The path heading straight along the valley floor.

Laguna Cerro Torre

5. Looking down the moraine and across the lake to Cerro Torre.

Scree slope Cerro Torre

5. Looking back down the path that comes from Mirador Maestri.

Mirador Maestri

5. The view from Mirador Maestri – Cerro Torre is out of shot to the top-right (Photo: Por Las Rutas Del Mundo)

 

To drill or not to drill? The Cerro Torre question

“You’d better know yourself, or you’re gonna die,” says the long-haired craggy-faced wiseman at the end of this trailer about climbing Cerro Torre. Fortunately, trekking to Cerro Torre is not at all dangerous, so you don’t need to know yourself. But appreciating that the mountain is the sight of much controversy among people who do know themselves will make your walk up there a little more exciting.

It’s all about the rights and wrongs of drilling holes into mountains and fixing metal bolts. Or about “interfering with the mountains”, as David Lama delicately puts it. The story is well covered here, here and here, and in a very long-winded and not particularly enjoyable way by Werner Herzog (of course) here. I’ll give the brief version. The context: Cerro Torre is a giant shard of granite that rises over a vertical mile; obviously, it is extremely difficult to climb.

1959

A young Italian climber called Cesare Maestri tells the world that he’s climbed Cerro Torre’s northeast ridge, losing his climbing partner Toni Egger on the way down. People agree that his partner died (they give his name to the peak next door), but people don’t agree that Maestri and Egger make it to the top of Cerro Torre.

1970

In an an attempt to shame the doubters, Maestri hits upon the curious idea of returning to Cerro Torre armed with a 150kg petrol-guzzling air compressor attached to a power drill. Four hundred bolts holes and bolts later and he’s climbed to within 50m of the summit, but Maestri decides that the final, tricky ice mushroom is “not really part of the mountain” so he doesn’t bother climbing it. Hmm. The so-called ‘Compressor Route’ up the southeast ridge is born. Mountain god and certified bear Reinhold Messner says that Maestri has “murdered the impossible” by drilling his way to the summit.

1974

An Italian team decides that the ice mushroom does in fact count as part of the mountain, and they climb up and over it to claim the first undisputed ascent of Cerro Torre. The whole thing takes them two months.

2010

After many ascents without much controversy, including up the snowy West Face (watch the video if you like Argentine accents), a Red Bull crew filming Austrian uber-climber David Lama drills another 60 bolts into the Compressor Route and everyone gets really really angry.

2012

This anger inspires climbers Kennedy and Kruk to go up the Compressor Route by “fair means”, which apparently means using just 5 bolts – those absolutely necessary to ensure survival – rather than 400. It takes them 13 hours. Significantly, they chop off 125 of Maestri’s bolts on their descent. Some call them heroes, others called them philistines (for destroying a bit of mountain history).

Just days later David Lama free-climbs the whole thing – that is, he doesn’t use any bolts at all, climbing a route up the southeast ridge that more or less follows the line of the Compressor Route. People who know themselves forgive him for drilling holes in the mountain in 2010. The trailer above is for a film about his climb, here is the first ‘episode’, and here‘s the second, in which Lama usefully explains the difference between aid climbing and free climbing at the heart of the Cerro Torre palaver.

Cerro Torre routes

Cerro Torre

Cerro Torre: you can see why people get all hot under the collar about it.

Nonna Bianca – ice cream parlour – San Telmo

Nonna Bianca_front_BuenosAiresDreams

(Photo: BuenosAiresDreams)

Nonna Bianca

What? Ice cream parlour

Where? Estados Unidos 425 y Defensa

No website / Sun – Thurs: 9am – Midnight; Fri – Sat: 9am – 2am / Mapa interactivo

 

Briefly:

This ice cream parlour (heladería) is the best value in Buenos Aires. You can buy a ¼ kilo (un cuarto) of deliciousness for around half the price it would cost you in BA’s smugger spots (Persico and Freddo). They apparently have 80 flavours including, vitally, peanut butter (mantecol). Don’t expect warm and fuzzy customer service.

 

Less briefly:

Up on the wall are about four thousand different flavours, which makes choosing what to get a minor ordeal. I usually ask my friends what they’re thinking, agonise over what they tell me, then ignore it and get the same as always: dulce de leche con brownie, banana split, and mantecol. Sometimes, if needs must, I switch out the banana split with something healthy, like maracuyá (passion fruit).

They seem to create a new flavour every week and then keep it, regardless of whether people actually like it or not. If other companies acted like this, then we would still have Lamb and Mint Sauce, German Bratwurst Sausage, and Marmite-flavoured crisps.

Some of the original flavours are quite good, like ginger and orange; others are quite atrocious, like mate and cream – just because drinking mate is a national pastime, that does not mean you can eat it with cream, just like you can’t eat gin and tonic with cream in England, nor Bud Light with cream in the States.

Crumpled behind the till is Blanca Real, the owner of the heladería, who must be pushing into her eighties, and has reached that wonderfully enlightened stage of life when you stop caring for social etiquette. Some people start farting or swearing in public, others start being cantankerous just for the sake of it; Blanca ignores you, then continues to ignore you, then acts affronted when you try and buy ice cream. She reminds me of a more aloof version of Roz from Monsters Inc.

I spent many afternoons, sometimes with company, sat on the wooden picnic tables at the front, made of that light Patagonian Cypress that can either look wholesome and homely, or look fake, as if it were the building material of choice for Disneyworld. We would dip our little spoons into the polystyrene tubs of ice cream (actually gelato, for pedants) and make audible satisfied noises: “Mmmmm, Oooooorr, Ooooh, yeeeeah.”

Apart from the picnic tables at the front, the layout of Nonna Bianca is quite odd. There seems to be some kind of deserted internet café up a set of stairs, and under the stairs are rows of tables shrouded in gloom. I once saw a couple sitting in the gloom and assumed they must be watching porn together or sniffing snuff – the only possible explanations for sitting there.

Nonna Bianca_flavours_Dream!Go!Live!

About half of the flavours on offer. Here you can see the all-conquering triumvirate of dulce de leche con brownie, banana split and mantecol.  (Photo: Dream!Go!Live!)

The Gibraltar – pub – San Telmo

gibraltar.front

(Photo: encounterargentina)

The Gibraltar

What? Pub

Where? Peru 895 y Estados Unidos

Menu (English) / Website (English) / Everyday: Noon – 4am / Mapa interactivo

 

Briefly:

During the day, this is the closest you will get to a proper English pub in South America. Wood-paneled walls, dark leather sofas, a TV playing Premier League football, a pool table, fish and chips, a Full English Breakfast, and even ale. At night the music is generally too loud and there are too many people, like Wetherspoons.

 

Less briefly:

Whenever Arsenal were playing on a Sunday I would drag along an American companion to The Gibraltar and try to teach them how to talk about football.

American friend: “Oh, man, the EPL is so great.”
Me: “Err, what?”
AF: “You know, the EPL, the soccer league. But Arsenal isn’t doing so great, right?”
“No, not this season.”
“But they’re still a great franchise with a great roster.”
“Err, what?”
“They’ve still got a great chance to get into the playoffs.”
“There are no playoffs.”
“Oh, yeah, right, sure.”

Our conversation would run on like this for some time, with his earnest enthusiasm gradually worn down by the dull acronym-less language of football.

Me: “It’s just called the Premier League.”
AF: “Oh, ok. So the Arsenal Gunners is a franchise in the Premier League?”
Me: “No. It’s Arsenal Football Club. And they’re a team, or a club; not a franchise.”

He casts his eyes down sadly, like a child who’s just been told that the annual school trip is to a pottery factory, not Alton Towers.

AF: “Ok. So it’s just Arsenal Football Club.”
Me: “That’s right. Just Arsenal.”
AF: “Man. You gotta get some better names for your franchises.”
Me: Sharp intake of breath. Bite my tongue. Decide not to get upset about the word franchise.

We negotiated these lessons about football with the help of a slightly-too-expensive pint and either the Full English Breakfast or the Fish and Chips. Both were large enough to be considered ‘hearty’ and the Full English was normally sufficient to bring on a mild food coma. The baked beans were not like baked beans in Britain, but then apparently even the baked beans in the States are not like baked beans in Britain (more barbecue sauce over there), so I couldn’t begrudge The Gibraltar that inauthenticity.

Behind the bar worked a pleasingly rotund Englishman who cracked jokes about Chelsea that only long-time Chelsea supporters would understand, and there was always a grey-haired Englishman sipping a pint at the bar who seemed to have been stolen from the days of the British Raj. Along with the paintings of old warships in battle and maps of the Falklands, there was an understated sense of a defiant national pride, which is probably why the place is named after a small British-owned island hundreds of miles from Britain but extremely close to a large Spanish-speaking country…

Gibraltar.Inside

Hmm, paintings of meetings between dignitaries – how very British (Photo: Aires de Bares)

Wood-paneled walls and dark leather sofas: very pub-like (Photo: encounterargentina)

Wood-paneled walls, lamps and dark leather sofas: how very pubby (Photo: encounterargentina)

La Puerta Roja – restaurant/bar – San Telmo

La Puerta Roja

La Puerta Roja

What? Restaurant / Bar

Where? Chacabuco 733 y Chile

Happy Hour: 6-10pm / Website (Spanish), but check their facebook page for proper info / Mon – Sun: 6pm – 5:30am. Sometimes opens earlier for football matches / Mapa interactivo

 

Briefly:

This is a place for foreigners who have been in South America for too long. Here you can buy a ludicrous amount of cheesy nachos, a draught pint of IPA, and watch football. Unless you like cramped hot spaces without seats, don’t go on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday. Go on a Monday (happy hour + curry and IPA meal deal), around 7pm. The door is not marked, so search for a red door (puerta roja) on the left side of the road as you walk from Av. Independencia. Behind the door are stairs leading up.

 

Less briefly:

Whenever Ian suggested going to La Puerta Roja I always felt a justified sense of foreboding. Ian is my Texan (from Austin – the socially acceptable bit), eating-machine friend. He can eat anything, except mayonnaise, so quickly and in such vast quantities that I once suggested he enter some kind of competition.

At La Puerta Roja the thing to eat is nachos. Google tells me that there is no dedicated nacho-eating competition; but there is one for tacos – close enough. The record is held by Japanese superstar Takeru Kobayashi, a short, incongruously muscular man who, when feeding, resembles a seal with arms and a blonde toupee. His record stands at 106 tacos in 10 minutes.

Ian suggested going to La Puerta Roja approximately every Monday, and we would invariably be sharing a platter – yes, it was a platter – of nachos, aptly named Súper Nachos. A single platter could feed a small country, maybe Luxembourg, but we shared it between two, being manly and foolish.

In the early days the sheer ferocity of Ian’s eating meant that he would be gnawing into my half after a few minutes. I tried appeasement, but to no avail. So we were forced to lay down some ground rules. When the platter came, we would endeavour to draw as defined a line as possible through the sludgy mountain of nachos, guacamole, sour cream, beef mince and melted cheese.

This would be accompanied by as many beers as our bellies would allow before the inevitable cataleptic bloated phase came on. At this point we would try and play pool in the next room, but soon realised that our bellies prevented us from approaching the table, our arms were too heavy to lift the cue, and any bending motion threatened vomit. So we roly-polied down the stairs to the eponymous puerta roja and waddled home.

The original sense of foreboding was for the knowledge that any attempt to sleep during the cataleptic bloated phase was quite futile, and however much time I spent in the living room walking around in circles (exercise) or drinking herbal tea (detoxicant), the night would inevitably be spent listening to the industrial waterworks operating out of my stomach.

The other thing you eat at La Puerta Roja is curry. On Mondays you can buy curry with an IPA very cheaply (considering the paucity of good beer in Buenos Aires). If you are from England, it will be among the worst curries you’ve ever tasted; but it is edible and somewhat filling. Half the plate is curry and the other half is rice, with a separate bowl for naan. It is not spicy: there is no spicy in Argentina.

We once made the mistake of entering on a Thursday night, which is the night that office workers celebrate the end of the week. This mistake about when working-weeks end might explain the state of Argentina’s economy. The place was full of mullets and suits and noise. There were no seats available and various faces were disentangling themselves from webs of hot cheese flaked with nachos. We decided that we should probably leave, and got our fix of fatty food at the Parillada down the road.

There are now signs on the wall saying witty drink-related phrases.

There are now signs on the wall saying witty drink-related phrases. (Photo: Argentina Independent)

La Puerta Roja_Inside

This is probably a Thursday night. (Photo: Jennifer Morrow)

Hierbabuena – restaurant – San Telmo

HierbaBuena_day.outside

(Photo: Pickupthefork)

Hierbabuena

What? Restaurant

Where? Caseros 454 y Defensa

Menu: see Facebook page (Spanish) / Mon: 9am – 5pm; Tues – Weds: 9am – 12pm; Thurs – Sat: 9am – 1am; Sunday: 9am – 12pm / Mapa interactivo

 

Briefly:

A superlative vegetarian restaurant in a beautiful old building near to Parque Lezema. One of the most delicious meals I ate in Argentina was eaten here (a kind of crème brulee made with camembert cheese – I think). At night on summer evenings you can sit at the tables outside with candles; but it’s best for a healthy – though not inexpensive – lunch. An excellent option for a couple or a small group after a Sunday traipsing around the San Telmo market. Don’t go any further south than this restaurant, because you enter La Boca and you might get stabbed, or mugged, or just have a lovely afternoon and run out of time for lunch.


 
Less briefly:

Listen to the menu at Hierbabuena: salted courgette bruschetta with red onion and cashew pesto; roasted squash with a salad of black beans, coriander, caramelised onions, tomato, rice and coconut milk; gnnochi stuffed with smoked aubergine and roasted lemon cream, spinach and marigold petals.

Doesn’t it sound fantastic?

It puts me in mind of the feasts described in the children’s books by Brian Jacques (Mossflower, Redwall, etc.). I must have read about 12 of these books before I realised that the plot was always the same, and the smaller but more skillful army of the goodies – made up of cute creatures like mice and squirrels – would inevitably defeat the larger but less skillful army of the baddies – made up of nasty creatures like ferrets and weasels and rats. But I kept on reading for the ravishing descriptions of food:

…roast chestnuts served in cream and honey, or clover oatcakes dipped in hot redcurrant sauce, celery and herb cheese on acorn bread with chopped radishes, or a huge home-baked seed and sweet barley cake with mint icing, all washed down with either October ale, pear cordial, strawberry juice or good fresh milk. (Mossflower, ch.13)

How wonderful it all sounded – a vegan’s paradise. But is any of that actually edible? Acorn bread with chopped radishes? Sweet barley cake with mint icing?!

I was concerned that Hierbabuena would offer a menu of lovely-sounding but inedible meals. Perhaps this was why I didn’t visit it until after two years of living in Buenos Aires. A big mistake. The food really is as good as it sounds. Each delicious word is matched by the real thing: foodstuff, tasty foodstuff. Even the drinks are pleasingly strange: Anna and I had blueberry lemonade.

It’s true that Hierbabuena rather rams the we-are-green-and-therefore-worthy message down your throat – there are plant pots with some kind of grass on all the tables and a painting of a tree growing hearts (yuk) and surrounded by inspirational slogans (eugh) on the wall. But it still has a lovely friendly atmosphere and, the truth is, you do feel worthy and green when you eat there. As an added bonus there are some beautiful rusted chains hanging from the ceilings that manage not to give the impression of a disused abattoir, which is fortunate given how earnestly vegetarian the place is.

At the monthly Organic Fair in the city Hierbabuena always has a store selling cakes and tarts and other veggie things. I usually avoid their stall because of the queue and the price, but I wouldn’t if I weren’t lazy and poor.

HierbaBuena_inside

Good solid rusting metal pillars. (Photo: Hierbabuena facebook page)

(Photo: Onedaycafe)

(Photo: Onedaycafe)

HiberaBuena_Sitting.Inside

Look at all those fun quirky chairs, it’s like a restaurant from a fun quirky indy film. (Photo: Mai10blog)

El Federal – café/restaurant – San Telmo

El Federal

El Federal

What? Café / Restaurant

Where? Carlos Calvo 599 y Peru (San Telmo)

MENU (Spanish) / WEBSITE (English) / Open everyday, from 8am until late / Mapa interactivo

 

Briefly:

El Federal is a lovely old café to stop in for a coffee and a little nibble. It’s two blocks from Defensa street, so is a good option if you need a break from the Sunday market, the big indoor antiques market (a block away), or if you don’t want to drink anything in Plaza Dorrego (maybe it’s raining, or you don’t like to be pestered by people selling pieces of wire with bits of reclaimed rubbish on, or maybe you just don’t like spending a week’s pay on a single coffee). There are better places to go to in San Telmo for a full meal, although the picadas (mixed platters of meats and cheeses and other stuff) are quite good.

 

Less briefly:

Looking down the length of Defensa street is usually a pleasure. There are the Church spires that act as sign-posts against the sky, there’s the big tree near Venezuela, which spreads its horizontal lines of green like dirty clouds, and on a Sunday shades the man who sells rusty knives. At the other end, near Plaza Dorrego, there’s the suggestion of trees, a hint of green poking out beyond the buildings, and of course there are the cobbles, which endure in all their holey glory despite the preposterous attempts of the local government to cover them over.

Looking down the side streets is not always so pleasurable, and the part of Carlos Calvo street which leads to El Federal curiously mixes the good and the bad of San Telmo into a single block. It is a surprisingly steep hill, and there are always a few people sat out along it, drinking Quilmes beer and/or watching football, who lend the street the certain charm of community.

But there’s also the ever so slightly intimidating parrillada, a steaming hole in the wall which makes meat sandwiches for the eternal assortment of men who loiter around the entrance and prop themselves on the bar stools. When you walk past your first thought is ‘this is authentic…cool! I should buy something.’ Then you look at the dry plain bread upon which lies the scraggly pustulating tube of red chorizo and you wonder if the thrill of buying a choripan from an ‘authentic’ spot like this is worth the inevitable grease sweats and food poisoning. You decide that it is. But then the men on the bar stools and at the little tables look at you as if you were dressed in the uniform of the British Army and holding up a sign saying ‘The Falklands Are Ours,’ and so you walk away briskly.

On to El Federal, where you can find the same charm without the “I’m going to kill you” stares. It is old, built in 1864, an era when San Telmo was still the barrio of choice for the moneyed elite of Buenos Aires, before yellow fever sent them packing seven years later.

The building has lived various lives – as a local store, a brothel and a warehouse – and, according to the website, has even seen a murder on its doorstep. It has only been a bar in its present guise since 2001, but its past still lingers in the cracks between the floor tiles and under the polish on the long wooden bar.

The food is distinctly average, in one of the rooms they play music too loud, and the menu is a little on the expensive side (for a miserly English teacher), but – like many cafes in Buenos Aires – El Federal is not really about those things. It is about the atmosphere, the smell of the place, the tantalising possibility of entering another time. When sitting by the bar with a slightly stale medialuna and sipping a cortado, it is easy to imagine yourself in another era, when working men tramped their dirt across the tiles and friendships would be made and broken and made again.

La Poesia – café/restaurant – San Telmo

La Poesia

La Poesía

What? Café / Restaurant

Where? Chile 502 y Bolivar

Menu (Spanish) / Website (English) / Open everday, from 8am until late / Mapa interactivo

 

Briefly:

This is – in my humble (but extremely tasteful) opinion – the best café in San Telmo. It reeks of past glories, has an agreeable upstairs section, and serves good picadas. There’s even a guy playing the piano sometimes. The area with the low ceiling can get a little stuffy on hot days, and the size of the menu is likely to induce choice paralysis; but apart from that, no trip to San Telmo – perhaps even Buenos Aires itself – would be complete without a trip to La Poesía.

 

Less briefly:

I had brought my friend Max to La Poesia because I thought it represented a slice of the ‘authentic’ Buenos Aires, the world of burdeles (brothels) and milongas (tango halls) and bohemian cafes where weighty chunks of cured ham hang from the ceilings, entangled in chorizo sausages like vines climbing a trunk, and where the counters stink pleasantly of wood polish.

Of course, my image of authentic Buenos Aires is entirely nostalgic and completely false. But entering La Poesia can make you believe in the fiction. There really are big bits of ham hanging like white cocoons, and there really are people sitting around reading and writing and looking, well, bohemian.

“We will now play a few tangos,” said a voice from below, much to my delight. Max would only be here for a week or so and my itinerary for him included various days entitled “Classic Buenos Aires,” so the prospect of live tango in a café effectively killed two birds with one stone. I crossed El Boliche de Roberto off the list; now we wouldn’t need to go there.

The pianist began smashing away at the bass chords and, in truth, I was glad that we were sitting in the upstairs section. But neverthless, the sense of being in Buenos Aires itself, a city with its own identity, was overwhelming. Here was not a city that was a grandiose but failed imitation of Paris. Nor was it like any other Latin American city, distinguished by their eternal bustle and ubiquitous knick-knack shops and dire concrete buildings. No, here was something that only Buenos Aires had. I leaned back, satisfied, and tried to make out the words (without success, as usual).

La Poesía is known for its illustrious former patrons: poets and artists and writers, some of whose names feature on plaques at the corner of the tables. To most people the names would mean nothing, but to a a tango afficionado they might ring a bell – Horacio Ferrer, Ruben Derlís, the important-sounding ‘Group of Seven.’ There’s even a video of Ferrer singing Lulú (written about his wife, who he met at the café) in the café itself.

The owners – who also own El Federal down the road – try to keep the cultural legacy of La Poesía going with various talks and photo exhibitions and gastronomic tidbits, but I must confess I have not been to a single one. As much as I love hearing about the delicacies of the language of tango, lunfardo, I suspect that I should try to understand my friend Juan in normal conversation before entering that particular labyrinth.

La Poesia

There’s the ham!

La Poesia

Fernet: the alcoholic drink of choice in Buenos Aires (mixed with Coke)

La Poesia

Upstairs, with the poets and the writers.

La Poesia

The menu: absurdly long.

Playa Blanca (Copacabana, Lake Titicaca)

Playa Blanca

To get to Playa Blanca beach you need to head out of the backside of Copacabana. From the cathedral on top of the hill, head north past the park down Hugo Ballivian. Eventually you’ll come to a roundabout, which you continue over onto ‘Camino a Sampaya’. There are, of course, no road signs, but it’s pretty obvious you’re on the right road because you pass a big warehouse on your left and the lake will soon appear on that side too.

You keep close to the lake for about 1.5 hours, walking through sheep-strewn fields. When the road cuts inland you need to take the path that stays close to the coast; you’ll know you’re doing it right if you come across some floating restaurants. Finally you come across a church in front of a forested hillock, here you skirt around to the left and soon you find the beach, ‘playa blanca’.

N.B. On the map below, the blue ‘where-to-go’ line only takes you to the spot where you need to leave the road. The beach is the obvious white thing a slightly northwest of where the blue line stops.

Playa Blanca

Sheep-strewn fields – good for staring contests.

Playa blanca

Floating restaurants in Lake Titicaca. If you see these you’re going the right way.

Playa blanca

The church on the headland. The path goes to the left of this.

Impressions:

We can see the backend of Copacabana, the rest is obscured by a headland laced with trees. Through the gently flapping waves lie smooth stones, giant pebbles that stretch and shrink as the wave passes over.

We came here because it was the national census and so no boats were heading to Isla del Sol. We’d been warned that if we were caught outside on the day of the census we would be given a fine. Deciding that such a fine would be absurd, since the Bolivian government presumably doesn’t care about how many people are in the gringo’s family, or what the state of their – temporary – accommodation is, we headed out anyway – out the of the backside of Copacabana, along roads flanked by pigs lounging in their own poo and sheep staring listlessly into the beyond, to a long dirt road that followed the coast.

The sun was relentless so I tied my hankey around my head to protect my nose and forehead. At this altitude – almost 4000m – even the tamest walk feels like a marathon, and so by the time we reached the final headland we were already knackered and ready to lie down and do what adults are supposed to do on beaches – nothing.

Up until playa blanca the coast is somewhat uninviting, a mass of reeds and mud and rocks. Then suddenly this short slither of paradise. It really is a shock – one moment you are walking along a cliff path with just, well, cliff, and the next you are on the secluded white sands of the playa.

There are two other couples on the beach. One enterprising male tries to erect a tent using some twigs and a t-shirt. The end product is a bit pathetic, a drooping rag that offers approximately no shade. A dragonfly passes, transparent apparition through the blue. Some marsh grass grows out of the water to the right side and slowly sways like people trying to lift their legs out of the stodgy ground and reach the coast, tilting forth then settling back.

In the distance is Peru, the nearest coast opposite us, then further round to the right the land dissolves into floating blue bumps, then tiny levitating blotches of ink separated from the lake by a clear band of sky; finally nothing, the horizon and its clouds. This is the largest lake in South America, and the highest navigable lake in the world – in other words, the highest lake with big boats.

Nitsanne crouches up in a ball and lets the waves tangle with her toes. Anna lies back and covers her face with her jumper. I lie back too. My trousers are rolled up to just below my knees. It seems somehow sacrilegious to not be wearing shorts on the beach.

The next day I wake up wondering why my legs are being steadily sawn off with sandpaper, then I realise that it is just the duvet rubbing against my burnt red raw lower legs, the only bit of skin exposed to the sun for the whole 40 minutes we ended up spending on the beach.

The German man from our hostel was heading down to the beach as we were leaving. He wore a sinister black hat almost identical to the one worn by Arnold Toht, the Nazi Gestapo agent in the first Indiana Jones film. The combination was unfortunate. Underneath the hat the German was unreservedly friendly, with a thin scattering of blonde hair surrounding a bald patch bleached red by the sun. At no point did his face melt.

He waved to us enthusiatically before stripping down to his pants and running into the water. I had earlier placed a toe into the lake and decided that you’d either have to be stupid or German to get into water so cold, so I wasn’t that surprised by our friend’s brazen entrance, given his German-ness. As we left he was still breast-stroking his way out into the shimmering blue, a white illusion floating above and yet still a part of the lake-bed.

November 2012